Down the drain: As the water level hits a record low, what will become of the Great Salt Lake?

Thinking about the shrinking lake as a natural wonder, an economic driver, and a part of Utah’s identity.

(Planet) Satellite imagery shows the Spiral Jetty sculpture, in the north end of the Great Salt Lake, in 2011 and 2021 — showing how far the water has receded from the shore in 10 years.

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Lisa Kamen calls the Great Salt Lake “a treasure” and remembers when she first visited the Utah landmark in 2008.

“We would walk out of Saltair and go for a swim,” Kamen, a psychologist from California, said recently, standing at an overlook about a mile down the shore from the Great Saltair, the onetime resort and now concert venue.

Back then, she said, the water was pretty close to Saltair. Now, in the heat of summer amid a drought, a person would have to walk about half a mile from the building to set foot in the water.

The Great Salt Lake is shrinking. On July 24 — Pioneer Day — the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the average daily elevation of the lake’s southern arm dipped below 4,191.35 feet above sea level, the record low set in 1963.

The Great Salt Lake is a terminal lake, meaning the water does not flow out through a river or bay. The only way the water leaves the lake is into the sky — and when the water evaporates, it leaves behind minerals, namely salt.

There’s a lot of summer left to take the lake’s level down further. “We’ve still got a lot of evaporation left,” said Laura Vernon, Great Salt Lake coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Birds decompose on the expanding shore of the Great Salt Lake on Saturday, July 10, 2021, as extreme drought conditions recede the water line to an unprecedented level.

The lake usually reaches its lowest level in September or October, Vernon said. In the fall, she said, rainstorms move into northern Utah and agricultural water use declines, leaving more water in the rivers that feed the lake.

But when fall is dry, as it was in 2020, “any precipitation that did fall went right into the soil, or melted very quickly and seeped into the soil,” rather than running into the rivers.

In the spring, when the snow in the Wasatch Mountains starts to melt, the lake refills.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to go.

“The lake usually goes up about 2 feet every year. It could be 3 or 4 feet in an awesome year,” Vernon said. “This year, it only went up 6 inches. So it just never had a chance.”

The mountains got less precipitation over the fall and winter, Vernon said, and the upstream diversions that hold water rights took their share from the three major rivers that flow into the lake — the Jordan, Weber and Bear. After that, she said, “there was very little left for the lake.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Grounded boats and dying microbes

The Great Salt Lake isn’t what it used to be. According to a 2016 paper by Utah State University researcher Wayne Wurtsbaugh and others, the lake has dropped in elevation by 11 feet from the time the Mormon pioneers first arrived in Utah in 1847. About a third of the lake bed that existed then is now exposed.

The lake is wide and shallow, so a drop in the water level means the coast recedes accordingly. “It’s like pouring water onto a plate,” said Lynn de Freitas, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of Great Salt Lake.

Evidence of the receding shoreline can be seen from space. Satellite imagery, provided to The Salt Lake Tribune by the geospatial data company Planet, shows how much land has been exposed as the lake level drops.

(Planet) A satellite image of Gunnison Island, in the north arm of the Great Salt Lake, on May 31, 2012.

For example, time-lapse images for the past 10 years show that Gunnison Island, in the northwest part of the lake, has essentially become a peninsula. Other photos show the water that a decade ago lapped the rocks of the Spiral Jetty, the earthwork art installation created by Robert Smithson in 1970, is now separated by hundreds of feet of beach.

(Planet) A satellite image of the Spiral Jetty, in the north end of the Great Salt Lake, taken on July 3, 2011.

The effects of the lower lake level are evident around the Great Salt Lake State Park marina, about a mile west of the Great Saltair. Boat owners by the dozens have removed their crafts from the slips, leaving them lined up next to one another in dry dock.

Other effects aren’t as visible but potentially could be devastating. The Utah Geological Survey recently reported concern that the drought could do lasting damage to microbialites, the underwater reeflike rock mounds that line the lake. Millions of microbes create the mounds and their microbial mats, forming the base of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem and providing the main food sources for brine shrimp and brine flies — the most abundant life-forms in and around the lake.

The microbes in these microbialites use photosynthesis, much like a plant, to grow and draw the sun’s energy into the lake, the UGS scientists say. Most microbialites form at an elevation between 4,185 and 4,195 feet above sea level — so when the lake level drops to 4,191, the record low, many of these mounds will be exposed to the air.

According to studies, said Michael Vanden Berg, energy and minerals program manager for UGS, “it only takes a short period of time, maybe weeks, for the microbial mat to ‘die’ and erode off the top of the microbialite structures.” If the lake level rises again to cover the mats, Vanden Berg added, it would take years for them to recover.

Farms drink first, the lake drinks last

The Great Salt Lake is complex, de Freitas said, “an organism that has so many different moving parts to it.”

Sections of the lake are different from one another. Looking at the satellite images from Planet, de Freitas noted that both Gunnison Island and the Spiral Jetty are in the lake’s north arm — which does not get replenished by the three rivers that feed the lake’s south side.

The Union Pacific Railroad causeway separates the north arm, also called Gunnison Bay, from the inflows of the Jordan, Weber and Bear rivers. The north side is fed by springs and precipitation, and has higher salinity and different salt-tolerant organisms than the south side — a difference visible from the air, as the Gunnison Bay water appears reddish-purple, while the water south of the causeway appears blue.

Much of the water that feeds the lake comes from snowfall, said McKenzie Skiles, an assistant professor in the University of Utah’s geography department, who researches snow hydrology and the way mineral dust changes snowmelt patterns.

“There’s a bunch of people and agriculture between the snowmelt and the inlets to the Great Salt Lake,” Skiles said. “The lake is already so shallow, a relatively small change in input to the lake results in a relatively large change in lake level.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An unusual sight emerges from the shallow waters of the Great Salt Lake as a “reef” pops into view between Saltair and Antelope Island on the south end of the lake on Saturday, July 10, 2021, as extreme drought conditions impact the lake.

In Wurtsbaugh’s 2016 paper, researchers noted that 63% of the water headed toward the Great Salt Lake is diverted for agriculture. Another 11% is claimed by municipal water systems and industry.

Wurtsbaugh noted in his paper that when water rights were divvied up, back when Utah became a state in 1896, landowners, farmers, ranchers and industry all got a share — but, in de Freitas’ words, “the Great Salt Lake and the natural systems weren’t at the table, so do not have water rights or are considered ‘beneficial uses’ of Utah’s water.”

When balancing economic demands with ecological ones — which range from recreation to providing a stopping place for migratory birds — de Freitas said, “a lot of people are going to go with the dollars and cents.”

The drought has led most Utah farms to deal with cuts to their water. At a July 16 news conference at a farm in Layton, Gov. Spencer Cox asserted — based on what farmers have told the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food — that farmers had seen cuts of between 70% and 75% of their supply. Even with conversation efforts, said Tyson Roberts, whose family operates the Layton farm where the governor spoke, “on a year like this, there’s not much water making it to the lake.”

‘If you eat almonds or fruit, you’re connected to the lake’

The Great Salt Lake is more than a natural wonder. It’s also a substantial provider to Utah’s economy.

The lake contributes about $1.32 billion to Utah’s gross domestic product, de Freitas said. That economic benefit comes mainly from three industries: mineral extraction, tourism and harvesting brine shrimp.

Vernon said a prime mineral extracted from lake water is sulfate of potash, which is used as a fertilizer, particularly in orchards. “If you eat almonds or fruit,” she said, “you’re connected to the lake.”

About 14% of the world’s supply of magnesium, and all the magnesium produced in the United States, is produced out of the lake, Vernon said. Because of magnesium, she said, “every soda pop can in the U.S. has a bit of the Great Salt Lake in it.”

As the lake level drops, Vernon said, extraction companies are having trouble moving water to their evaporation ponds so they can collect the minerals they sell. “Some of the canals there are not long enough to get to the lake to get the water,” she said. “Or they get the water, and it’s so salty it messes up their equipment.”

As for tourism, de Freitas said, since the first settlers arrived, boating has remained a constant on the lake, though reduced lake levels have prompted many boaters to dry-dock their craft.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Boats no longer able to leave the Great Salt Lake Marina due to extremely low water conditions, are removed and placed in dry dock as seen on Friday, July 9, 2021.

In the state’s early days, de Freitas said, the lake “was recognized as therapeutic, because of the salinity and how that’s good for the bones,” she said. “Resorts were constructed, and people went.” The original Saltair resort was marketed, in part, as a health spa.

Harvesting brine shrimp, the microscopic creatures that are one of the few life forms that can thrive in the lake’s salty water, is a $67 million-a-year industry, Vernon said. The shrimp, marketed to kids in the back of comic books in the 1960s and 1970s as “Sea-Monkeys,” mainly are sold as food for fish farms.

The brine shrimp industry is imperiled by the decreasing lake level, Vernon said. Less water means the lake becomes saltier, which makes the shrimp produce fewer offspring. Also, she said, “the harvesters are having trouble getting their boats out of the marina” and spending more to move their equipment.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pontoon boat takes visitors on an informative tour of the Great Salt Lake on Saturday, July 10, 2021, as extreme drought conditions shrink the chances of any boats being able to leave the south marina.

The lake’s impact on Utah’s “Greatest Snow on Earth” may be partly public-relations hype. The so-called lake effect may make for a spectacular snowstorm from time to time, Skiles said, but the lake’s water actually contributes between 5% and 8% of the snowpack’s moisture.

What happens when a lake dies?

As the lake level drops, and more of the lake bed is exposed, the environmental effects are felt beyond the lake.

Dust from the dry lake bed can get picked up by wind and deposited on the snow in the Wasatch Mountains, Skiles said. The dust makes the snow darker, so it absorbs more sunlight and makes the snow melt faster.

“When snowmelt runs out faster,” Skiles said, “it’s taken up by the landscape — absorbed into the soil and by plant roots — and less water ends up in the lake.”

That dust also can contain heavy metals, such as arsenic and mercury, that are harmful to people’s health. “Whatever has been settling out over time,” Skiles said, “once it’s exposed and taken up by the wind, that will end up downwind wherever that dust gets deposited.”

When a terminal lake dries up, de Freitas said, the effects can be catastrophic. She cites Owens Lake, nestled between Sequoia and Death Valley national parks in California’s eastern Sierras. That lake dried up in the 1920s, its water diverted to Los Angeles, and became the country’s biggest source of dust pollution. Los Angeles, de Freitas said, “spent a billion dollars trying to mitigate the impact from the air quality problems.”

“We know what the economic costs could be” if the Great Salt Lake evaporated, Vernon said, because of cases like Owens Lake or the mostly dried-up Aral Sea straddling Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. “We know what the health risks could be. The drought has just brought it to the forefront.”

‘A geological force on us’

Utahns sometimes tend to treat the Great Salt Lake the way New Yorkers treat the Statue of Liberty: Something they show to out-of-town visitors but otherwise ignore.

“I just don’t think people see the value in the lake, and the beauty,” said Vernon, a transplant from back east who said she started working in land management and became “super intrigued” by the lake. “If you can time it just right, so the no-see-’ems don’t drive you nuts, it’s a magical place and it’s beautiful.”

The lake, Vernon said, “helps us identify us with where we are in the West. It’s easy to find Utah on the map because of the Great Salt Lake, and it is the namesake of our city.”

“We kind of take it for granted,” Skiles said. “If it wasn’t there, or if there wasn’t enough water to maintain the bird habitats, what would that mean for the broader ecosystem?”

Friends of Great Salt Lake tries to foster thinking around the bigger questions about the lake, de Freitas said, by offering the Alfred Lambourne Prize to artists of various disciplines — visual art, literature, music and dance among them — inspired by the lake’s mysteries.

“It’s part of our sense of place,” de Freitas said. “It’s part of our cultural underpinning.”

Katharine Coles, Utah’s former poet laureate and a distinguished professor of English at the University of Utah, said that she never visited the lake as a kid growing up in Salt Lake City — even though her parents “were serious outdoor people.”

“The perception was that the lake was dirty, and there were a lot of flies out there, and it was highly concentrated in salt,” Coles said. “It was really only tourists who went out there, and only because they could bob around, being buoyed by the saltiness of the lake.”

The only locals who bothered with the lake, Coles said, were birders. She said she knows this because she married one, and started accompanying her husband to Antelope Island and other refuge sites.

“I became quite taken by the lake as an adult,” Coles said. She credits the rise in her awareness to de Freitas’ group, Friends of Great Salt Lake, and to Terry Tempest Williams’ landmark 1991 book “Refuge,” which described the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Sanctuary in the 1980s.

On Wednesday, Williams tweeted new photos from the Bear River refuge — or what’s left of it.

“Friends, I do not have the capacity to describe the sorrow of what we are seeing and not seeing here at the Bear River Bird Refuge,” Williams wrote in her post. “There is no water — no birds — and no wetlands that sparkle + sing. Only a dry, silent marsh — in a parched landscape [with] a dwindling Great Salt Lake.”

Williams did find some water at the sanctuary’s south end, and with it white pelicans, white-faced ibis, glossy ibis, great blue heron, Franklin’s gulls and California seagulls (Utah’s state bird) on a mud bar.

Coles has lived for the past 20 years in a house high up in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood, and her backyard deck affords her a view of City Creek Canyon and the lake in the distance.

“It’s a narrower strip of water now, I think, then it was 20 years ago,” Coles said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Coles has frequently taken photos from her house, posting on Facebook to show her friends living outside Salt Lake City.

“Very often, my evening shot is a shot of what the lake looks like — that very thin strip of water, and what the sunshine looks like around it,” Coles said. “As I’ve been confined to my home, I’ve actually become much more aware of the lake from up here than I ever had in the past.”

Over 18 months, the lake “is the same every day, but also different every day. That body of water is a kind of living, changing entity that is, as much as the landscape is everywhere, really defined by light and air quality, the seasons.”

Coles said “these massive geological features really define, often, our moods … in terms of their magnetism and force, and the way they rivet your attention.”

The Great Salt Lake, Coles said, “exerts a geological force on us, even though it’s from more of a distance. … If one lets it exert that force more powerfully, then the desire to visit it and to see it close up [increases]. And you don’t have to go where the flies go.”

Brian Steed, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, also has a view of the lake — from his home on Davis County’s west side, where the lake’s water line used to be.

“To watch the dust storms come off just that way already, it’s scary,” Steed said Thursday, after a news conference about the drought.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun sets on the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake on Friday, July 9, 2021, as extreme drought conditions continue to drop the lakes water line.

No easy solutions

How do you save the lake?

“I wish there was one clear, concise answer, but there’s not,” Vernon said. “There’s no silver bullet.”

People conserving water “on a big level” is a good start, Vernon said, but that’s not all. “There’s got to be a mix of innovation and ideas to help bring water to the lake.”

The solutions, she said, will require everyone to “figure out ways to move water downstream — while allowing people to … use their water rights that they’re entitled to.”

Steed said any solution will require ideas from many players. “We’re all going to need to put our heads together. … And that’s going to require getting more ‘wet’ water in the lake.” (Among experts, “wet” water means actual water, as opposed to water rights someone might have on paper.)

With the lake at historic low levels, de Freitas said, “hopefully the public is getting a sense of urgency and being concerned about what this means to them personally.”

De Freitas points to a report released in December, after a resolution passed by the Utah Legislature, to address the lake’s declining water levels. The report details six areas of focus — educating and engaging both the public and government officials, improving information and decision making, finding ways to use agricultural water better, improving municipal and industrial water use and planning, refining legal and policy options, and seeking sustainable water sources for the long haul.

Water use in Utah, whether one thinks about the Great Salt Lake or not, “is a bottom-line issue,” particularly during a drought, de Freitas said. “It’s a matter of recognizing the responsibility we all have, the way we contribute to the problem or the way we contribute to the solution.

“The bottom line is: Where is the water?” de Freitas said. “It all comes down to: What are we willing to do?”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People take in the setting sun near Saltair on Friday, July 9, 2021, as extreme drought conditions makes the walk to the waters edge longer each passing day.